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Marcus Whale on music, Collarbones & composing

Marcus Whale is a musical young man from Sydney, comprising half of Collarbones, retaining membership in Black Vanilla and operating under the Scissor Lock moniker. His vocals make him popular with the young people and folks who appreciate good music. A talented cat for sure. The 2012 sophomore Collarbones record Die Young is real nice, you can stream and purchase it at the bottom of this page and we’ve thrown in some clips filmed recently at The Standard along with some other things. Check them out. I spoke to him this week …

Nick Hollins: You’re a reasonably virtuous vocalist, saxophonist and composer, recently for Now You Are Safe From Them. What is your musical background? What manner of formal training have you had and how has it influenced your perspective and approach?

Marcus Whale: I started piano when I was 4, but gave that up when I was in year 8. I got pretty focused on playing classical and jazz saxophone during high school, although I stopped doing that so much when I went to university to study music composition. I think this background has made me appreciate, more, the elasticity and expressiveness of pop music. I suppose I’ve learned from the system’s elitism a bit too, in that way. Whenever people ask me about being ‘classically trained’, my first thought is about how it’s kind of stupid to put it on a pedestal.

Nick: I wasn’t able to attend, but you recently composed a work among others for a performance by pianist Zubin Kanga in Sydney. Can you describe your compositional process a little and how did the performance work out?

Marcus: Zubin asked me to write a sort of ‘prelude’, so I put together something quite contained and comprehensible. We got together a few times and I gradually refined it. My writing style is usually very simplified and minimal. I rarely write at the piano, usually my works consist of really slow moving gestures, but for this I just banged out a few chords – I think most of the piece is made up of just three chords, harmonically, but are delineated in quite complex ways, sort of to resemble the weird repetitions and loopings that happen when you practice a passage you can’t quite play yet.

Nick: I read that the new Collarbones record Die Young is an homage to teenage romances and heartbreak and the like, a nostalgic ode to high school experiences … to this end, what were some of your favourite records in your school days?

Marcus: When I was 13, I was really into Tool. My favourite album was Lateralus. I turned it into my religion, basically, it was a quite spiritual reverence. I got into post rock and similar things shortly after and started idolising some local acts like Triosk, Because of Ghosts and This Is Your Captain Speaking. The whole time, Vespertine and Medulla by Bjork were really big influences on me. On the other side of the spectrum, I got really into emo hardcore, not metalcore stuff, but more on the DIY punk side, I used to play Innominate by Off Minor, a bunch of releases by Ampere, City of Caterpillar, Eucalypt, Ohana and pre-Cancer My Disco. So things have changed quite a bit I suppose!

Nick: Collarbones is kind of blowing up in 2012, even more than last year. How does it feel to gain extra attention and plaudits, have you noticed a change in your live audiences or same old?

Marcus: A weird thing about this – people have started coming up after shows and asking for pictures and autographs on our CDs, and these days there’s a solid bunch of really enthusiastic people up the front. Before, it’d just be our friends basically, then a bunch of other people, but these guys are different. A girl was in tears during the last few songs at The Standard in the front row and it was incredibly humbling – it’s actually a total privilege to be able to play music for people, and as luck would have it, a few people have caught on to it. I’m keen to not get distracted by the potential vanity of the exercise.

Nick: I see the rise of acts such as yourself, Thomas William, Guerre and Nakagin from Sydney’s “experimental” or beats scene toward popular adoption as pretty understandable considering the appeal of modern “pop” to the wider audience of folks. Am I right in perceiving a growing number of young producers on the up?

Marcus: It appears there’s a pretty big appetite for the vague style across those acts you’ve mentioned. Flume has a huge following, for instance, and a bunch of his stuff would probably have been seen as pretty niche if it had emerged, say, three years ago, before people like Hudson Mohawke got more popular. I think people have more diverse tastes in music because of the internet and widespread downloading and it’s only natural that people making beats of a kind are becoming more popular – the “youth” aren’t just listening to triple j anymore. Still, experimental sort of stuff – Pimmon, Oren Ambarchi, improvisation scenes – only really gets up peripherally, through arts festivals and the like and internationally, that sort of stuff is still really niche.

Nick: What influence does online culture, Soundcloud, Bandcamp and beat sharing have on this phenomena? Anyone can collaborate or start up online labels … you and Travis being a classic example of this right?

Marcus: Actually, to sort of contradict myself in a way, I think that there are way more people making music these days, which I think is an incredibly beautiful way to break down the kind of Eurocentric custodianship model of creating art and maybe come closer to giving it a truly communal function. It’s a bit utopian, I guess, and ultimately it means that the idea of being a musician (which is basically my job these days) becomes less of a kind of valorised mystery talent, and more democratised. But to answer the question, it’s made it a lot easier for electronic acts in particular to get their music listened to by people, and creates a community atmosphere for what is ultimately not that much of a live form.

Nick: In what ways is Black Vanilla different to the Collarbones and Scissor Lock projects?

Marcus: Black Vanilla is changing a lot soon but at the moment it’s a total R&B party band. I assume a character. It’s sort of really trying to bring a vibe I would want at a party or a gig, to get people dancing. I love my friends, Lavurn and Jarred, who are the rest of the band, so it’s also a chance for us to spend time together.

Nick: What Australian acts do you think people should be listening to?

Marcus: These guys are all friends of mine that are making completely world-class music over a huge range of styles and although Strict Face and Oscar have gotten some accolades recently, the others have been given way too little attention. This is where it’s at I think, as far as this place goes.

Nick: Do you have gigs or releases coming up you’d like to let us know about?

Marcus: We’re playing at OutsideIn Festival and Newtown Festival on the 10th November and 11th November respectively. We’re playing with Teengirl Fantasy for Melbourne Music Week at the National Gallery of Victoria on 23rd November. These will probably be the most exciting shows we’ll play.


  • Founder and Editor of Skydreams. Producer of Telepath on FBi Radio.

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